The Met out of step on new cannabis law

London police chief admits to 'massive amount of muddle' over reclassification, as his force diverges from rest of UK
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The Metropolitan police is expected to take a more liberal approach in dealing with people caught in possession of cannabis, compared with other forces, adding to the confusion over the imminent reclassification of the drug.

Cannabis will be downgraded from a class B to a class C drug on 29 January under reforms drawn up by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.

Possession of the drug will still be an arrestable offence, but new guidelines sent to Met police officers specifically urge them to "presume against arresting people in possession of a small amount of cannabis ... unless there are aggravating circumstances".

Senior Met sources say Scotland Yard's guidelines are at a subtle variance with new national guidelines on cannabis law enforcement issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Acpo has issued guidance to all forces which recommends officers still arrest users who smoke the drug in public. Acpo's three-page document also advises arrest for those found with the drug near a school, for repeated possession and where users in an area cause a policing problem.

Senior Met sources have flagged significant differences between the wording of the recommendations and those issued by the Met to its borough commanders. "The Met guidelines say there is a presumption against arrest. It is urging officers not to make arrests."

The police have been instrumental in pressing for cannabis law reform so that officers can concentrate on targeting the supply and trafficking of class A drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin.

In 2001, the Met launched a pilot scheme in Lambeth, south London. Officers were instructed to caution people in possession of small amounts rather than arrest them - freeing up as much as six hours of police time per offender, it was estimated.

Sir John Stevens, the Met Commissioner, has admitted there is widespread confusion over reclassification, with people not recognising that possession is still an offence. "I think there is a massive amount of muddle about where we are on cannabis," he said last week. "The position is that the use and possession of cannabis is still against the law in this country."

Forces are taking steps to educate people about the reforms. Nottinghamshire police has issued beer mats to pubs and bars bearing the message: "Drug taking is illegal and won't be tolerated on these premises. Cannabis is illegal and will remain illegal."

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has commissioned a study into the impact of reclassification. "We expect to find considerable confusion among the public and especially young people," said Professor Michael Hough, of Kings College London, who is to carry out the research.

Campaigners have also raised health issues. Rethink, the mental health charity, has called for the Government to issue warnings over the risk of developing schizophrenia.

The Home Office has commissioned an independent expert to examine the research on the health impact. Les Iversen, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, says there is no compelling evidence cannabis causes mental illness. Condemning the "hysteria" surrounding reclassification, he told the IoS any risk affects a "very small, vulnerable minority", adding: "Cannabis has turned out to be rather safe compared to other drugs."

Additional reporting by Luminitsa Holban and Steve Bloomfield

What will the impact be?

The Independent on Sunday went to Bournemouth in Dorset where - according to an analysis of Home Office figures - police take the hardest line on cannabis possession.

The patient

It's a step in the right direction for people with MS. As a sufferer, I say it's time the stigma was lifted from cannabis. I had been banging my head against a brick wall. The doctors and neurologists were not friendly. MS gave me sleep problems and anxiety; they prescribed anti-depressants. But cannabis helped me to sleep and to concentrate.

Patrick Donnelly, 35

The supplier

We supply medicinal cannabis for registered patients, and specialise in treating arthritis and MS. We haven't had problems from the police, but technically it's not legal. The change is a half-measure. But we are now hoping for a lot more GP referrals. The police won't want to waste time, especially with the heroin problem here.

James Cooper, 29, manager of holistic centre

The doctor

It worries me immensely.I used to think it was people who already had a mental illness and that cannabis simply sped up the process. ButI am seeing more cases of people who have become psychotic as a result of abuse. It's going to be more available on the streets at a cheaper price. It will open up the floodgates.

Tom McKinstry, 60, GP

The headteacher

The fear aspect of cannabis has gone. Children may feel it isn't as bad as we thought and those on the fringes may get sucked in. It is not a huge issue for us. We have a stringent policy and usage is infrequent, but we can't pretend they have no access. At least we've been open and honest and given them facts. If we don't educate them, who will?

Annetta Minard, 45, of Oakmead College of Technology

The teenager

If they make it class C more people will take it because it's not a big sentence. It's making people not worry about it. You would think you can take it for ever and it won't hurt you. If people take class C then B, if they think it's good they will soon move up to class A. That's if they don't die in between.

Reece Evans, 14

The user

Reclassification is a good idea, but it should go further. It would take the kudos out of it for young people if it wasn't illegal. I don't agree with people under 16 smoking it. It's more attractive to them because it's illegal. I probably smoke a couple of times a month, less than when I was a student. It's very easy to get hold of. I know it's an offence so I'm very careful, but it's up to the discretion of the local police force. They are much stricter in Bournemouth than in London.

'Zoe' (not her real name), in her 30s, works in marketing